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Interview:
Eric Clapton Finds Happiness
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Happiness has never exactly been Eric Clapton's mileau.

The man whose prodigious guitar skills inspired graffiti-scrawling fans to declare him God on London walls in the 60s has made spent much of his career singing the blues about the travails of broken romance, the horrors of "Cocaine," white rooms with black curtains and shooting the sheriff (but not the deputy). Music has been more catharsis than celebration over Clapton's 43-year recording career.

But latest album, "Back Home," is indeed about being happy, "probably the only one I've ever made like that," Clapton concedes with a laugh. Rambling clearly isn't on his mind anymore.

"I think it's just my state of mind, probably, as much as anything else," Clapton, 61, says of the emotional transition on "Back Home," which came out in August of 2005 and followed 2004's "Me and Mr. Johnson," his acclaimed collection of Robert Johnson songs.

"I'm having a good time and a fairly contended kind of life in the middle of disaster all around us," continues Clapton. "I think the fact that I'm here and I'm OK with me, I'm kind of happy just being me, I've got a feeling I know who I am -- it couldn't be better, really."

These days Clapton -- who dedicated a whole album, 1970's classic "Layla (And Other Assorted Love Songs), to unrequited love -- is a contented family man. He lives with his second wife, American-born Melia McEnery, and their two young daughters. He also has a 21-year-old daughter, Ruth, from a previous relationship.

That's made an obvious difference in his domestic life, but Clapton says it's also improved his artistic outlook as well.

"I think it's taken a lot of the stress off," he explains. "It's given me a great deal of security. Whatever happens, I know that I'm going to be loved by those people. The home thing is actually there and it's actually waiting for me, so there's not so much anxiety about that any more.

"That frees me up to do this (music). I can do it for fun. It's not being used to attract anybody or to be anything other than the music I want to make at any point in time. Nothing has to be as dramatic as it used to be."

There's been plenty of drama in Clapton's life, of course. Born Eric Clapp, he was raised by grandparents, believing they were his true parents. He's suffered debilitating heroin and alcohol addictions, ultimately kicking both and founding the Crossroads Center for rehabilitation in Antigua. He managed to woo his first wife, Patti, the subject of "Layla," away from good friend George Harrison, but it was a rocky marriage before it ended in 1986.

Clapton suffered the loss of friends and crew members died in the same 1990 helicopter crash that claimed fellow guitar-slinger Steve Ray Vaughan shortly after a concert that also featured Clapton. And in 1991, his four-year-old son Conor fell to his death from a New York apartment building window, inspiring the Grammy-winning song "Tears in Heaven."

He's also long struggled with his musical reputation and the aforementioned "Clapton is God" devotion of fans of his work in the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Cream before starting his solo career in 1970.

"I just thought it was all blown out of proportion," he says. "I never saw myself as being that much better than anybody, really. I just saw myself as being another guitar player who knew a little bit about the history of it all.

"I didn't ever really see myself as particularly gifted, so it was very difficult to absorb all that kind of early adulation."

These tribulations, of course, are the stuff of which great blues is made, though Clapton says he always sought to follow the blues tradition of letting the music supersede the tragedies.

"That was not necessarily apparent in the lyrics of the songs, but the way they sang it," Clapton explains. "Guys like Skip James and Robert Johnson would sing about fairly kind of tragic or dangerous situations with this sense of humor, that had a happiness to it. I think those guys dealt with irony a great deal, too."

Clapton has continued to mine the blues, winning Grammy Awards for efforts such as 1994's "From the Cradle" and "Riding With the King," a 2000 teaming with B.B. King. But he's also developed himself in the pop vein as well, stepping outside the guitar heroics for hit -- and also Grammy-winning -- fare such as "My Father's Eyes" and "Change the World," a teaming with Babyface that was named Record of the Year in 1996.

"It's never gotten boring for me," Clapton notes. "It's always a challenge to try to get the groove with a bunch of musicians, to try to find the common place where we all really function well together."

"Back Home's" title track, however, might set off a few alarms with Clapton's fans, however. A gentle and rootsy song marked by acoustic guitar, it finds Clapton singing about the joys of home and declaring, at one point, "I'll be on my way/Got no need to stay 'round here no more."

Considering he's made noises about retiring in recent years, it sounds like a farewell -- which Clapton promises is not the case.

"I didn't want that to be an offensive thing, like 'I don't need this anymore,' " explains Clapton, whose next album -- "The Road to Escondido," a collaboration with JJ Cale, writer of "Cocaine" and "After Midnight" -- comes out in November. "What it's saying is 'I know where my home is. I know where I am loved.'

"That was a big thing for me to say about myself. So what I was trying to say was I don't have to ramble any more. I can, and I will, but I don't have to. I know where I can always go."



Eric Clapton and the Robert Cray Band perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (September 23rd)at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $125, $85 and $55. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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